A basic call for humanity: the story of Alex Kelly

The events that lead to the death of a 15-year-old boy in a young offender institution last year demonstrate that reform is needed not to satisfy some left-wing notion of soft justice, but to introduce a basic standard of humanity.

In January last year, a 15-year-old boy was found unconscious in his cell at Cookham Wood, a young offender institution in Kent. He had hanged himself with his shoelaces. Staff tried to resuscitate him and paramedics attended before he was taken to hospital, but he was pronounced dead at 19:30 GMT.

His name was Alex Kelly. Here is his story, which is told in a case review into his death by Tower Hamlets Safeguarding Children Board.

Alex was in the care of Tower Hamlets council and was serving a 10 month detention and training order for burglary and theft from a vehicle. He was taken into care at the age of 6 after being repeatedly raped by a family member over a substantial period of time. According to the report, “The abuse had a profound effect on his emotional health and behaviour throughout the rest of his childhood.”

He became preoccupied with finding out about his history, his identity and why he was not living with members of his family, which led to increasing difficulties with his behaviour. Tower Hamlets provided no allocated social worker from October 2011 until shortly before the time of his death. Prior to this, he had eight different social workers between 2002 and 2012.

After sentencing in the Magistrates’ Court, the local Youth Offending Team recommended that Alex should be sent to Cookham Wood – despite the fact that his vulnerability meant he would have been eligible for placement in a small unit offering higher levels of support, like a secure children’s home.

At the time of his death he was on an open ACCT (Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork) plan. This was because he had threatened to “string up” on a number of occasions, was cutting himself and blocking the observation panel in the cell door. He received formal disciplinary charges in response to these cries for help.

The Serious Case Review found that there were serious failings in the working relationship between the health service, the mental health service and prison officers in Cookham Wood. If mental health staff had taken account of the records of prison officers regarding his behaviour, his risk of suicide would have been assessed as much higher, which would have influenced the way he was managed. For example, they might have removed his trainers from his cell. He also managed to stop his medication without staff being aware.

The night he died was the first time at Cookham Wood that he mentioned the previous sexual abuse he had suffered in conversation with a prison officer. His observations were increased to five per hour. He hanged himself in between these observations.

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Alex was the second young boy to die in a week by his own hand in a young offender institution, and one of three to die in 2011-2. There have been 34 deaths since 1990. The prisons ombudsman found two may have suffered bullying in the young offender institutions, were extremely vulnerable and should have been moved to specialist units. Evidence from CCTV suggested that even when staff witnessed harassing behaviour from other young people it was not adequately challenged.

There was a familiar problem maintaining a balance between care and discipline - or in the report’s words:

Assessments of vulnerability and risk of self-harm did not adequately weigh static risk factors against presentation or fully take into account the complex ways children can show emotional distress.

I speak to Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, to try to make sense of this case. He tells me:

The case is extreme: he took his own life - but it’s typical of the young people we encounter who end up in custody. We see a lot of chaos, neglect and abuse. We see police and social services aware of these problems but not intervening.

Once these youths offend, then the weight of the state comes down on them - but it’s the criminal justice system, which only serves to compound the problem. The punishment comes first: the welfare is an afterthought. It’s a problem which is only set to get worse as prison budgets are cut.

Neilson tells me that Alex’s problems were exacerbated by the fact he wasn’t in prison for a serious crime:

The people who come in for more serious crimes will be subject to more intense interventions in a bid to stop them offending again.

The state in its entirety failed Alex Kelly. While the Serious Case Review makes a number of important recommendations for Cookham Wood and Tower Hamlets council, one institution that isn’t held to account is the judiciary: in this case the magistrate that sentenced him.

Magistrates make vital decisions every day,” says Neilson, “But they have very little accountability. To some degree it’s understandable: we want to maintain the judicial independence of judges - but in the end they’re lay people and so we believe they should have more contact with the outcomes of their decisions, as it may influence the decision-making process in the future.

Neilson suggests nothing has been learned from the recent reports into these deaths:

The Government’s Transforming Youth Custody Consultation outlined all the welfare issues surrounding children who end up in prison, but then it just ignored them and went concentrated on education and secure colleges.

Calling for a root and branch reform of the way we treat the most vulnerable in our society is not some left-wing call for soft justice. It’s a basic call for humanity. More than that: it’s economically logical: every child like Alex Kelly costs tens of thousands every year to keep incarcerated. Basic things like sharing information better, improving access to mental health care and tackling bullying in child prisons are the most minor steps. That the Government would rather prioritise its latest ideological agenda is highly disappointing.

The Serious Case Review found that there were serious failings in the working relationship between those responsible for Alex. Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.